"SOVEREIGNTY" - Psalm 121; Luke 12:49-56
A Sermon by Alex W. Evans, Pastor
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
From Sunday, August 18, 2019
Texts: Psalm 121; Luke 12:49-56
In some quiet moments of study and reflection in my 3rd floor office this week, a certain old book from my shelf got my attention ( I got lots of books!). I purchased this book while in Seminary in the mid-1980’s. The author is a world famous Catholic theologian named Hans Kung. The book is small and succinct and entitled, Why I Am Still A Christian. This book was next to another book that I was looking for – but it is this one by Kung that got my rapt attention.
This is how the book opens: “What can I rely on today? What can we hold to? I am not a pessimist, but we scarcely need reminding that we are now in a ‘crisis’ of values as profound as it is far-reaching.” Kung continues: “This large scale crisis of values has thrown modern society into conflicts which have not yet by any means been resolved. . . . How do we lay down priorities and preferences? . . .How do we know what we can rely on?” (see H. Kung, p. 19-20)
Wow! Hans Kung was not worried about trade and tariff wars with China, . . . . or the Russians interfering in our elections, . . . . or the crisis of gun violence and assault weapons in our culture (assault weapons were illegal in the 1980’s), . . . or the dangerous effects of climate change on the whole planet, . . . or the latest deep grief that has emerged in your life, or your family, or our community. And as I kept reading in this little thoughtful book – Why I Am Still A Christian - from one of the great theologians of the last century, I found myself . . . surprisingly encouraged.
This is what Kung says. He cannot give up on the Christian faith even though others have co-opted the term to mean so many things that it does not mean (sound familiar?). He cannot give up on the Christian faith because it is his rich tradition – a tradition that has shaped him, even with its foibles and failings. He cannot give up on the Christian faith because that faith – our faith – is all about God who creates, loves, cares, comes among us, never leaves us, and redeems us. He cannot give up on the Christian faith because faithful Christian life gives us a purpose – loving, giving, serving, working for justice – even in the crises and confusion of the world. That purposeful living – love and justice – moves us toward the Kingdom of God.
So, in the midst of the continuing crises of our culture, and the busy-ness of life, the re-discovery of this little book gave me fresh insights and energy for faith, life, and ministry.
We have been, in these summer Sundays, listening to stories of Jesus from the gospel of Luke – lots of familiar stories that remind us we are called, we are challenged, we are invited to be sincere disciples who work and serve for the Kingdom of God.
Today’s story from Luke may be less familiar and maybe even more jarring. But I am hoping that our reflections on this story, and with thoughts of who we are and Whom we serve, we will find fresh insights for trusting and serving God – even with the crises that surround us.
Listen now to Luke 12:49-56:
49“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three;53they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
54He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Ludwig van Beethoven, the great composer, would sometimes play a trick on polite audiences, especially when he guessed that they weren’t really interested in serious music. He would perform a piece on piano, one of his own slow, sweet pieces, which lulled everyone into thinking that the world was a soft, cozy place, with mostly beautiful thoughts and the sense that everything was easy. Then, just as the final notes were dying away, Beethoven would bring his whole forearm down with a crash across the keyboard, shocking the assembled company. This was his way of reminding us that the world is also full of pain as well as beauty. The shock of that crash of notes on the piano is a good image of what Jesus has to say at the end of Luke 12. (See, N.T. Wright, Luke, 159)
These are not soft words from the meek and mild Jesus. These words make us uncomfortable: “I am bringing fire to the earth, and I wish it were already kindled;” . . . “not peace, . . .division;” . . .“father against son, . . .mother against daughter;” . . . “why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
Maybe Jesus is a bit like Beethoven. Jesus has been walking along with the disciples, teaching, loving, encouraging. Jesus has been telling them about how to love and serve, how to act and live. He has been showing them how to pray: “when you pray, say this.” And then he slams his forearm on the keys: the Kingdom of God is at hand. It is real. It will unsettle families and create uncertainty. “Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
The word for today is an important one – SOVEREIGNTY.
SOVEREIGNTY has to do with the idea that God holds ultimate Lordship over the universe such that God’s will is supreme over all else. This will is known most fully in Jesus Christ, who revealed God’s ways in everything he did – loving all, forgiving sinners, feeding the hungry, eating with outcasts, teaching and helping, giving and going – working for the peace and wholeness of every person, the Kingdom of God.
SOVEREIGNTY has to do with idea that just as God created the world and called it good, God will complete the world and all things will be well.
SOVEREIGNTY has to do with the faith and convictions of Hans Kung – who affirms, despite the crises of the world, whatever they are, our life is best orientated toward God. Kung says this: “God is the good God, the God who looks on human beings with kindness, the God in whom men and women can place absolute and unreserved trust even in doubt, suffering, and sin, in all personal distress and all social affliction – the God in fact in whom we can place our faith. . . . the God who, as the all-embracing and all-pervasive God of the world,” the One we can absolutely rely on. (p. 40)
SOVEREIGNTY has to do with the affirmation that no matter what happens in life or in death, God is in charge. God gets the last word. God promises life and life eternal. That message runs through the whole Bible: a wandering tribe? No, God’s people! Slaves in Egypt? No, life in God’s certain care toward the promised land! Crushed in exile? No, God’s people with a purpose – to worship and serve God in the world! Oppression and death on a cross? No, resurrection and life serving God – the church! SOVEREIGNTY is the term we use to remind us that God’s ways win; God’s ways prevail.
This is what we sing in the Hallelujah chorus at Easter: “Hallelujah! The Lord God omnipotent reignth, . . . the Kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” That is SOVEREIGNTY.
There's a great story about the famous Albert Einstein. Einstein got on a train departing from Princeton Junction. When the conductor came to his seat, Einstein was unable to find his ticket. He searched through all his pockets and looked in his briefcase, becoming extremely disturbed. The conductor tried to comfort him, saying, "Dr. Einstein, don't worry about the ticket. I know who you are and you don't have to present your ticket to me. I trust that you purchased a ticket."
About twenty minutes later, the conductor came down the aisle of the train once again and saw Einstein, still searching widely for the misplaced ticket. The conductor again said to him, "Dr. Einstein, please don't worry about the ticket. I know who you are!"
With that, Einstein stood and said in a gruff voice, "Ok. Thanks. I know who I am too, but I am trying to find my ticket because I want to know where I am going!"
Indeed, we all want to know where we're going. We want to know what's next. We want to know that everything is going to be okay. Too often, we rely only on ourselves, our knowledge, our skills, our brilliance. It will only take us so far. (See D. Powers, Sept 4, 2016, on Day1.org)
SOVEREIGNTY reminds us where we are going – toward the Kingdom of God. And we should see the times, the things that challenge us, always in the context of God – God’s SOVEREIGNTY. With the SOVEREIGNTY of God, no matter what happens to us along the way - we keep trusting, working sincerely for God’s purposes in the world.
Vincent Harding was one of the great leaders in the civil rights movement. Harding wrote some speeches for Martin Luther King.
Not long before Harding’s death 5 years ago, Harding was interviewed by Krista Tippet about how the song This Little Light of Mine was sung in Selma during Bloody Sunday in March, 1965. Harding remembered saying, "Governor Wallace, give us our freedom!" and the whole contingent of marchers sang: This little light of mine/I'm gonna let it shine. This little light of mine/I'm gonna let it shine. Let it shine in the face of government power and angry mobs and dogs and guns and water hoses - This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.
Harding said the most basic, deepest word was: "Whatever you do, we're gonna let our light shine. God gave it to us. We're gonna let it shine. . ." (see M. Ramsey, sermon, August 11, 2019, on Day1.org)
SOVEREIGNTY tells us God is finally and fully in charge – he shall reign forever – and we keep to the tasks, focused on God’s work in the world. SOVEREIGNTY reminds us – no matter the confusion or the crises or the context – God is working out God’s purposes. Our lives, our duties, call us to participate with God in the promised sovereign reign.
The name Kate Bowler has been mentioned numerous times from this pulpit. Kate Bowler teaches at Duke Divinity and she was diagnosed in her mid-30’s with terrible, stage IV colon cancer. Kate Bowler writes about this ordeal in her book, which many of us have read, Everything Happens for a Reason – and Other Lies I’ve Loved.
Recently, David Brooks, the author and NY Times columnist, interviewed Kate Bowler as a part of his Aspen Ideas seminar. In that interview, which covers so many subjects with inspiration, insight, and humor, Brooks asks Bowler – with all the complexities and treatments she has been through – how she sees now her life, how she might summarize her life. Kate Bowler says two words have become very important to her, especially, she says, to her theology. The two words are, “even so.” She says we cannot understand everything – like why she got cancer or has had such a hard time. She does not know the meaning – why does she suffer and others do not – or the eventual outcome or purpose. She cannot know what is in store for her, even as a young mother and promising professional. She cannot explain things but she can live with hope, with strength, with perseverance and faith. “Even so” . . . . that is her mantra. That feels so honest and helpful.
“Even so” is the reminder of the SOVEREIGNTY of God. Cancer, complexities, crises in the nation or at the border, terror and fears – they are all real and part of life. But the SOVEREIGNTY of God reminds us who holds us and who holds the world. “Even so.” The SOVEREIGNTY of God affirms that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus. So we keep on, even so.
The psalmist says “I lift my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? From the Lord, who made heaven and earth. . . .The Lord will keep your life.” SOVEREIGNTY of God.
Jesus says he comes to bring the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God changes everything. We are to be about the Kingdom! Can’t just wallow along, wandering and waiting. The time is pregnant with God’s emerging reign. We are part of it. SOVEREIGNTY of God. God wins. God’s ways prevail. Don’t get caught up in the worries and ways of the world. Be about the work of the Kingdom. We know where we are going. “This little light of mine, . . . gotta let it shine.” “Even so” - we keep on.
The SOVEREIGNTY of God allows us to trust God in all times, and serve God in every way. May it be so. Amen.
Prayer of Commitment: Holy God, pour out your Holy Spirit upon each of us. Keep us focused and faithful, hopeful and diligent as your disciples. We seek to follow Jesus Christ. Amen.
Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on Sunday, August 18, 2019. This is a rough manuscript.